A French archbishop has welcomed a woman’s bid for the episcopacy and warned it “would be grave not to engage seriously” with the issues that it raises.

– Is priesthood necessary for governance?

Archbishop Pascal Wintzer of the Poitiers diocese responded June 25 in La Croix to 73-year-old biblical scholar, theologian, journalist, writer and women’s rights campaigner Anne Soupa’s bid to succeed Cardinal Philippe Barbarin at the helm of the Lyon archdiocese.

In her May application for the post of Archbishop of Lyon, Soupa wrote: “If my candidacy is prohibited by canon law, it is simply because I am a woman, that women cannot be priests and that only priests, by becoming bishops, lead the Catholic Church”.

She added:

“Considering that being a priest is one thing, and governing is another, that two popes have declared the question of women’s access to the priesthood closed, but that Pope Francis asked theologians to better distinguish priesthood and governance in order to make a place for women,

“I note that nothing has been done in this regard for seven years. Would there be only my candidacy to respond to the Pope’s call?

“To govern a diocese requires to be a priest only because canon law has decided so. But the office of bishop existed long before canon law! The Twelve Companions of Jesus were not priests; Peter was even married. Since the highest antiquity, the bishop (the “episcope”) has been a watchman, a protector who observes and watches over the cohesion and doctrinal correctness of a group of communities. In what way could a lay person not carry out this function?”

That question of what it means to “lead”, “govern”, and observe and watch over the “cohesion” of the Church was exactly where Wintzer centred his reflection on Soupa’s candidacy, but called for a clear distinction to be made between the bishop’s “authority” and his “power”.

– Bishops “are not first of all leaders, organizers or managers”

Wintzer – who has been a priest for 33 years and a bishop for 13 – restated Church teaching that Christ called the apostles – and calls the bishops who succeed them – to exercise authority after the model of the Great Servant who “came not to be served but to serve”.

But although bishops are “men of God; religious and consecrated people… they are not first of all leaders, organizers or managers”, Wintzer admitted.

That’s why the Poitiers archbishop appeared to express a certain discomfort with the fact that although bishops are primarily “men of God serving prayer and proclaiming the Word”, by historical accident they “have gradually assumed administrative functions” to the point that in France today “bishops are responsible for ‘everything’, especially for what prohibits”.

“[Bishops] must constantly arbitrate and devote time to tasks that would be the responsibility of other people more competent in these areas”, Wintzer acknowledged.

Recalling that from the very moment of the rite by which it is conferred, ordination must “take into account the human, social and ecclesial context in which one is ordained or called to this or that mission”, Wintzer insisted on the importance of the “decisive” idea of “worthiness” for Church leadership, which he wrote “must be extended beyond ordained ministers, both for those who are called and sent and for those who call and send”.

It was here that the Poitiers archbishop gave credence to one of Soupa’s arguments – that ordination and governance need not necessarily go hand-in-hand – when he wrote of the importance of “decision-making practices” in the Church “that refuse to be solitary exercises, but which tie together diverse viewpoints and words”.

“The bishop or ordained minister takes his place, of course, but never alone. He must always allow time and methods that lead to seeking the agreement of the greatest number of people involved. In such a process, everyone must have their place — the ordained minister, the lay faithful and, therefore, the entire Christian community”, Wintzer acknowledged.

– Towards a “re-reading” of the ministry of bishops

That shared nature of the episcopal ministry that Wintzer admitted was not the end of the story for the Poitiers archbishop, who acknowledged that alone the promise of lay-priestly-episcopal co-responsibility “cannot do honor” to the entirety of Soupa’s observations.

Seeking, then, to do further justice to Soupa’s candidacy, Wintzer asserted that “the exercise of a decision-making role, which is the prime responsibility of the bishop, with priests as his co-workers, cannot dispense with the calling and training for other ministries in the Church”.

Suggesting that both men and women receive “ministries of charity, preaching and presiding at common prayer” and that much “not… by substitution, but by right; not by delegation, but in view of worthiness”, Wintzer argued that working towards the “full and complete responsibility” of laypeople in the Church “should lead even more… to a re-reading of the apostolic ministry of the bishops, with whom I associate celibate priests”.

The Poitiers archbishop concluded by acknowledging that Soupa had broached “serious” questions in the Church with her candidature but more than that, had also tapped into a debate over “choices and decisions” in the Church with regard to laypeople “that would be grave not to engage seriously”.

More on Novena on Anne Soupa’s candidacy for Archbishop of Lyon:

“A prophetic sign”: Spanish female theologian backs woman candidate for Archbishop of Lyon

More than 4,500 sign in support of female theologian’s bid to be next Archbishop of Lyon (with video)

(Update: as of 26/6, the number of Soupa’s supporters has now risen to over 16,000)

Female candidate for Archbishop of Lyon deplores: “The situation of women in the Church is scandalous”

To put a stop to clericalism and abuse, female theologian puts hand up to be next Archbishop of Lyon


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.